Perhaps you’ve been in this exact same situation.
You are hours into cramming for tomorrow’s huge final exam, and you feel yourself starting to lose focus (not to mention interest).
You decide to put your earbuds in and blast some music on full volume to hopefully pump you up.
Is this a good decision, or a really bad one?
Researchers have been trying to answer the complex question of whether music is a good idea while studying for years.
In fact, scientists, psychologists and health practitioners themselves have had their say, and the results show that…well, there’s not exactly one straightforward answer.
Is it good to listen to music while studying? While certain kinds of music can improve your focus and even lower your stress and anxiety, other types of music can be distracting and lower overall productivity.
Luckily, there are a few options to go with next time you are trying to choose a tune that will help you ace that test.
Why is Music Good for Studying?
Yes, music can absolutely be beneficial to you while you’re working away at those algebra problems. Here are three reasons why:
It Helps You Focus
The most common theory as to why listening to music while studying is good for students is that doing so improves their focus.
If you are playing some tunes, there’s a good chance that you are also blocking out any noise or potential distractions from the outside world and are fully engrossed in what is in front of you.
Even better, listening to music can wake you up if you are tired from staying up the night before, giving you the proper boost of energy you need to power through the rest of the studies.
It Lessens Your Anxiety and Stress Levels
There are plenty of popular suggestions from doctors, researchers and teachers alike as to how students can reduce their stress and anxiety levels.
Some of the most common include paying money for a deep massage, changing up an unhealthy diet or trying out a completely new exercise routine.
While these are all good ideas on their own, they require time and effort, which can be in short supply for students.
Instead, listening to music is a fast and cheap way to lessen the tension you may feel in physical ways that are just as effective as any of the other suggestions.
In fact, music can reduce your stress and anxiety by lowering your blood pressure, heart rate, and slow your breathing.
It Puts Us in a Better Mood
A 1990 study by The New York Academy of Sciences discovered the following: “…positive benefits of music listening on cognitive abilities are most likely to be evident when the music is enjoyed by the listener.”
What does this mean?
Essentially, music can help you with your study concentration and motivation if you are actually enjoying what you are listening to.
So, for instance, if you throw on a favorite rock song of yours that you know all the lyrics to, you are much more likely to approach studying in a positive manner.
On the other hand, if you put on any random music and find yourself not liking what you are hearing, you are more likely to become distracted and lose focus.
Why is Music Bad for Studying?
The above reasons make for a pretty perfect case as to why music should be played while studying, right?
Well, before grabbing those earbuds, consider the potential negative effects as well:
Our Productivity Decreases
Psychologists have taken on the task of explaining why music can be a bad idea when it comes to studying.
Joanne Cantor summarized that listening to popular music with lyrics can interfere with completing complex tasks, reading comprehension and information processing.
This is because when you are listening to lyrics, your brain has to switch its focusing to the words being sung so that it can make out what is being said. There goes the attention that should be focused on understanding all those pesky chemical compounds!
Our Working Memory Suffers
Back to the scholars now. A 2017 collaboration study done by researchers in The United States, The United Kingdom and Germany discovered that playing background music while studying can actually affect your working memory in a negative way.
In general, you use your working memory to retain short-term information, such as things you need from a grocery store or addresses of where you plan to go soon.
If you play the wrong type of music, which is any that requires more focus than what is in front of you, you may just forget that one vocabulary word that may have made all the difference in your test results.
Our Own Tempo Changes
Individuals who exercise tend to pick heavy, loud music to listen to while working out as this type of music gets their heart pumping.
On the other hand, people trying to meditate may listen to slow, soothing music to bring their heart rate down.
When you’re studying, your own internal tempo will also change based on the kind of music you listen to.
Therefore, if your playlist is hardcore, you may feel the urge to get active.
On the other hand, a particularly slow tune may make you feel drowsy or too relaxed.
Even more influential are shuffle playlists. If your music is going back and forth between fast and slow, your brain (and body) won’t know what to think and feel, let alone how to study well!
How to Pick the RIGHT Music for You
Okay, so music can be good for you while you study.
Those scholars and researchers say that it can help you focus and even lower your anxiety and stress levels, which tend to be through the roof during study time.
But, at the same time, the wrong type of music can really affect your focus and cognitive ability, even hurting your memory.
So how can you choose the right music to play while you memorize all those long words, endless numbers and boring equations?
In the end, there are three top music options for you to choose from that will deepen your focus and leave you feeling great:
Soft Classical Music
The Mozart Theory of the 90s claimed that the music of Mozart would boost the intelligence of babies or young children as they got older, making him a favorite composer for many parents worldwide.
Since then, this theory has been debated and even debunked over the years, but still, many researchers agree that classical music is a great choice for studying.
Specifically, it’s a top choice because there are no lyrics, no particularly heavy or particularly slow beats, and the music is peaceful.
Overall, Mozart or Beethoven really can’t hurt.
Another go-to for study music is soft jazz. Jazz has gotten an unfairly bad reputation over the years by many who may see it as boring or even dub it ‘elevator music.’
In fact, some jazz can be absolutely invigorating and just as hardcore as the typical rock n roll song.
For study purposes, soft jazz is still recommended as, like soft classical music, it doesn’t include lyrics or a fast-paced tempo.
Yes, when it comes to studying, that ‘elevator music’ may actually be the best choice.
Ambient Background Music
This type of music has been a favorite for many students over the years and continues to gain popularity.
Ambient background music does away with traditional song structures, beats, tempos or melodies and instead purely focuses on tone and atmosphere.
Often times, ambient music will be accompanied by soothing visuals, including running streams, vast landscapes and beautiful scenery, which can also be refreshing to look at during exceptionally stressful study moments.
There are pretty much endless options for ambient background music, making this a very accessible option.
So next time you’re stressing about that upcoming exam in a few hours, don’t hesitate to pick up those earbuds.
Go for music that works to motivate you rather than to distract you.
After all, music is meant to be an enjoyable experience during every kind of moment in life, including while studying.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.